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Viewers Tire of Seeing President Squirm

Charles Lynn, an employee at the Rockville Seniors Center in Maryland, spends lunch watching the president's testimony. (James M. Thresher – The Washington Post)

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Transcripts and Excerpts

Video Clips From Clinton's Testimony

Readers' Views

Clinton Team Says Hill May See Backlash (Washington Post, Sept. 21)

By Joel Achenbach and John W. Fountain
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page A29

For many viewers it was must-see TV -- a U.S. president getting grilled by prosecutors about an adulterous sexual liaison. For others, it was too much. It was shouldn't-have-been TV. These were the people who think the market in scandal has become irrational, with supply running far ahead of demand.

"What are we to gain?" asked Bobby Pizarro, a baker standing in the television section of the Best Buy in Reston, where three sets showed the president getting interrogated. "We've already destroyed him."

Ten days after the Starr report hit the Internet, a second, even larger wave of material crashed into the public domain, including 3,183 pages of documents about President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. It was a bonanza for scandal lovers. But for others, lacking an iron stomach for new details, denials and legal gamesmanship, this latest batch of material may have been indigestible.

"It's like my soap opera.

It's like 'General Hospital.' "

The four-hour videotape in particular required patience. The interrogation it recorded seemed to be a lawyer's version of Whack-A-Mole. The prosecutors kept pounding. The president kept ducking. Whackety-whackety-whack, on and on.

Many people watched a few minutes, absorbed the scene and went back to work. They already knew the sordid story, and they already had an opinion about what should happen to Clinton. More denials and more salacious details would not change their minds. And by now they seemed unshockable.

"We've gotten desensitized to it, so none of it bothers us anymore," said Butcher Chapman, a liquor distributor, as he lunched at the BET Soundstage restaurant and club in Largo.

People watched like film critics: "He could use a makeup man more often," salesman Dirk Cassard said at Morton's on L Street.

At Dulles International Airport, Clinton loomed over the baggage carousels. The president could barely be heard over the squawking of the public address system and the permeating Muzak. One traveler, software consultant Dan Igoe, scrambled over the conveyor belt to raise the volume. He said he doubted the video would change his mind. He's through with Clinton.

"He lied to the people and you can't do that in his position," Igoe said. "He loses all credibility."

In the cafeteria at George Washington University's Marvin Center, students could watch Clinton on a massive screen as they did homework and ate lunch. His voice seemed to be coming from somewhere in the rear of the cafeteria.

"Ohhhh!" the students moaned in unison when a prosecutor asked about a cigar-related moment.

"It's like my soap opera. It's like 'General Hospital,' " said freshman Caitlin Tobin.

When the president called Lewinsky "a good girl," freshman Amy Condon blurted out, "This is disgusting." She objected to the concept of the middle-aged president having an affair with an intern. "He's so old."

[The Dow is] "continuing to drop as he testifies."

The scandal may still be an obsession on Capitol Hill, where Hill rats watch CNN even on boring days. But not many people around the country could afford to spend four hours watching television. They have jobs, or child care responsibilities. Many grabbed snatches of Clinton while on the run, or they waited until they got home to catch the replays and highlights.

In much of Washington, however, the scandal has become part of the ambiance, an inescapable background noise, not always intelligible. The broadcast of Clinton's testimony might have been a playoff game in baseball, something where people had to check the score even if they couldn't imagine sitting through the whole thing.

At the Gateway 2000 government relations office, John Heubusch sent e-mail, wrote letters, talked on the phone and occasionally swiveled to take a peek at the TV right behind him. Clinton, he said, has made the scandal "part of the environment" with his prolonged attempt to cover up the liaison with Lewinsky.

Heubusch looked unimpressed and a bit bored by the president's performance. But then Clinton suddenly leaned forward, turned red, and seemed to be fighting back a volcanic rage.

"Here we go!" Heubusch said. "I told you it'd get better." But Clinton checked his temper.

Heubusch's colleague, Donald McClellan, said, "Look at the Dow. It's continuing to drop as he testifies."

Indeed that was half the excitement. Clinton stayed pretty much the same, hour after hour -- "I'll revert to the statement," he would say -- but the stock market, tracked in one corner of the screen on at least one network, was in one of its manic-depressive phases, diving and then rebounding.

There were places here where Clinton found a receptive audience, such as the Imani Cafe, a soul food restaurant in Southeast Washington.

On the walls were framed photographs: Frederick Douglass, Stokely Carmichael, Marion Barry, and the Clintons, with a signed letter from the president commending owner Lamont Mitchell for his efforts to feed the homeless. And now the president was on a snowy TV on the wall.

"They showed the dress.

They cut to the dress!"

One patron, Maurice Nelson, offered up his own testimony: "If I had to answer a set of interrogatories for every woman I've been with, I'd be sweating bullets."

Kim Douglas was about to sit down to eat when she caught a glimpse of the television screen.

"Oh no," she said, "they showed the dress. They cut to the dress!"

She and her friends weren't thrilled about this broadcast.

"First of all, they interrupted the 'Young and the Restless,' " said Jeff Mason. "And second of all, to be honest with you, I don't care."

"I think it's kind of like overkill," said Terry Lampkin.

Mason: "Do you know how many people have affairs?"

Douglas: "If that lady kept that dress all them years, it's got to be a setup."

Lampkin: "He's always had a problem with women."

The television blared, the testimony winding down.

Mason: "How much of it is honest? How much of it is fact?"

Lampkin: "I'm just kind of tired of it all. We're sitting in Anacostia, watching something that has nothing to do with people around here, watching it like O.J., like 'Roots.' "

Douglas: "It's just like 'Jerry Springer.' "

These conversations, with different spins and biases, were heard all over the country. The testimony was perfect material for law students trying to figure out the art of the dodge at the University of Miami Law School's Center for Ethics and Public Policy, where about 50 people gathered to watch the president and shout at the screen.

"Where is his lawyer?

Is he asleep?"

Mario Garcia, an ethics fellow, finally turned away.

"I can't keep watching. It's shocking that he hasn't resigned."

For the first two hours the crowd seemed to accept Clinton's testimony.

But when he lapsed into legalese, hoots of derision filled the room.

"Oh, yeah. Now he is going to memory loss," Tad Dee moaned. "They are catching up with him with his lies."

Jaret Davis, another fellow, coached the man on TV: "Don't evade a question. When a juror asks it, find a way to answer it. Take the Fifth, say, 'I don't recall.' "

"Fifth, fifth, fifth, fifth," Dee chanted. "Now he is lying to a grand jury. Good night."

"Where is his lawyer? Is he asleep?" Davis wondered as the president was asked if he had oral sex, if he touched her breast, if he used a cigar.

"Grand juries are supposed

to be private."

At the Billy Goat Tavern, a famous greasy spoon in downtown Chicago, the testimony inspired a rearrangement of the chairs and tables for a better view of the television. Seven officials of United Auto Workers Local 659, visiting from Michigan, declared unanimously that the Republicans were on a witch hunt.

"There are a lot of people out there who are still upset Nixon had to resign, and they're determined to force a Democrat to do the same thing," said Don Mosher, 60, a retired GM die-maker. "The Republicans are out to get him, but it'll come back and bite them in the butt."

A debate sparked up at the bar, between two pipefitters.

"I hate him," proclaimed Tim Spulak.

"They should hang him, guillotine him, give him the electric chair."

Pat Sheehan didn't agree. This testimony shouldn't have been made public, he said. "Grand juries are supposed to be private," he said.

In Los Angeles, there was much chagrin at the Metro Diner, "The Original Dog-Friendly Diner," where the walls are lined with old movie star photos (Lombard, Bacall, Monroe). Patrons worried that this entire affair is an embarrassment for the United States.

"What are they trying to prove?"

"What a question to ask!" Juanita Perera, a student from Monterey, said when one of the prosecutors asked Clinton if Monica Lewinsky had performed oral sex.

"Only in this country would the populace care about their leader's sex life," said her breakfast companion, Javier Aldape, a financial analyst.

Grace Housworth, a loan officer, said that she would never talk about such matters with her closest girlfriends, much less a grand jury. She was amazed by the specific details from Lewinsky -- "I wish somebody would explain to me how she remembers every date."

And so people talked, and assessed and rendered judgments. The issue is divisive and the divisions already seemed to be firming up. If there is to be a major shift in public opinion, it did not appear to be happening yesterday. People had never seen Clinton in such a situation, but at the same time, it was familiar material.

Outside the Rockville Senior Center on Carnation Drive, Ken Collins and Charles Lynn were hoisting two flags, one American, the other a Rockville city flag. Normally they go up at sunrise, but this was not a normal day.

Collins had to buy special hooks for the flags because the old hooks had been stolen by vandals.

"What are they trying to prove? He's been doing a good job. He got unemployment down," said Collins, as he and Lynn pulled the white rope that brought the flags to the top.

"He shoulda told the truth from the jump," said Lynn.

"Yeah, but we all lie. If I was in court gettin' burned, I would lie too. Wouldn't you?"

Staff writers Jacqueline L. Salmon, Lena Sun and Natalie Hopkinson and special correspondents Catharine Skipp in Miami, Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles and Keri Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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